Libby as represented on the state government's Montana Broadband Availability Map as of Feb. 7, 2022.

HELENA — State officials have published a new interactive map charting broadband availability across the state, presenting data that will be used to guide the distribution of more than a quarter-billion dollars in funding to boost Montana’s broadband connectivity in the coming years.

An application period for an initial round of grants from that funding — $266 million from the state’s share of the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act — also opened Monday. That money is available to private internet service providers who submit plans to expand coverage to under- or unserved areas through the state’s ConnectMT program.

The program, broadband coordinator Chad Rupe said at a public meeting of the state’s broadband commission Monday, is focused on providing modern internet access to parts of Montana, rural areas especially, that don’t yet have broadband connectivity.

“We’re trying to get access to locations so people can engage in today’s society,” Rupe said at the meeting.

While the Federal Communications Commission maintains a national broadband coverage map, that effort has been widely criticized as insufficiently detailed to inform efforts to expand high-speed internet connectivity as the federal government pumps billions into broadband through both the American Rescue Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The new Montana broadband map is part of Gov. Greg Gianforte’s effort to administer the portion of that funding being routed through state coffers using a framework specified by the Montana Legislature last year.

“Too many of our communities, particularly in our rural and frontier areas, lack access to reliable broadband. That’s why we’ve made a historic investment to get fiber in the ground and close the digital divide,” the governor said in a statement Monday.

Gianforte, a Republican, publicly opposed the American Rescue Plan Act when it was passed by the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress last year, calling it “fiscally irresponsible.”

“We’re trying to get access to locations so people can engage in today’s society.”

Montana broadband program coordinator Chad Rupe

The state broadband map presents address-level data on broadband availability, categorizing 700,683 locations across the state as either “served,” “underserved,” “unserved” or “frontier.” The state considers addresses fully served with broadband if they have access to a low-latency connection with download speeds of at least 100 megabits and upload speeds of at least 20 megabits per second. The program’s other categories are tiers of low-quality or outright nonexistent service.

The map also delineates areas where the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have awarded separate money to build out broadband access, categorizing addresses inside those boundaries as “served” even if those locations don’t currently have high-speed access.

In sum, the map indicates that 64% of the addresses in its database are considered served for purposes of the state program. Most of the remainder, 26%, are classified as underserved, which means they are thought to have slower service than the full-fledged broadband standard, but speeds of at least 25 megabits per second downloading and 3 Mbps uploading.

Nearly all addresses in most of Montana’s larger cities, such as Billings and Kalispell, are classified as served, which means those areas will have a difficult time qualifying for the current round of broadband funding. Service in smaller towns such as Libby and Miles City is shown on the map as a mixed bag, with their blocks commonly including a jumble of served and underserved addresses.

Miles City as represented on the state government’s Montana Broadband Availability Map as of Feb. 7, 2022.

Rupe said Monday that the map is based on a combination of crowdsourced data points from websites that let people spot-test their connectivity and proprietary data provided to the state by internet service providers.

ConnectMT program instructions say applicants should demonstrate that their proposals will provide coverage in un- or under-served areas of the state by overlaying their project areas on the state broadband map. In order to qualify for funding, at least 10% of the points inside a project area should be considered un- or under-served, according to Rupe.

In the event applicants believe the state map is inaccurate, they will be allowed to provide supplemental data of their own. The state also plans to update the map as new information becomes available over time, Rupe said Monday.

“This map is for informational purposes — it is not the authoritative source to say this location is served or not served,” he said.

Grant applicants will also be required to put up at least 20% of their proposed project cost as matching funds and commit to offering services using the new connection infrastructure for at least five years. The Montana Legislature has also specified that other broadband providers will be able to issue challenges to ConnectMT applications.

Applications are due April 8, and the program expects to announce grant awards this summer.

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, who sponsored the ConnectMT legislation, said Monday that the program gives Montana a chance to drastically change its broadband access rating, which is ranked 50th in the nation by BroadbandNow.

“As a state, we have a generational opportunity here,” Ellsworth said. “It is truly transformational.” 

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

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Eric DietrichDeputy Editor

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.